Copying is Not Theft, the Barbershop edition

Aaron Wolf's released a jim-dandy Barbershop Quartet arrangement of Nina Paley's song "Copying is Not Theft."

The song is licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 (as is my entire website). This means I have full legal right to do anything I want with it as long as I credit Nina and I license my version the same way. Lots of people have already made tons of variations of the song from jazz to punk rock versions.

Copying Is Not Theft: Barbershop Arrangement pt2 (Thanks, Peter!)


  1. Copying is not theft.

    Copying something you don’t already own (or have a license for) is.

    Giving away copies that you don’t have permission to distribute is.

    “Those who believe in respect (at least) for living authors will buy [the authorized] edition, and no other.” — J. R. R. Tolkein.

    1. > Giving away copies that you don’t have permission to distribute is.
      No it isn’t. I think you failed basic posting rule of actually reading (or in this case listening) to the post before commenting. It explains the difference. If I’m wrong and you did listen then maybe it was to subtle and you should go watch the original cartoon. That should help make it clear.

    2. misunderstanding troll misunderstands.

      if it was theft it wouldn’t need its own laws prohibiting it.  it never ever has been theft, nor will it ever be.  copyright infringement is its own thing and new laws had to be passed to make it illegal.  before those laws were enacted there was nothing illegal about it.

      the idea that it is “theft” is misinformation spin from the RIAA and MPAA. it is as wrong as it is stupid.

      whether those copyright laws are in our best interest or not is a separate discussion.

  2. It’s very simple. Copyright Infringement is not theft. It’s Trespass. Think of a copyright as a grant of a monopoly on the copying of works. Like an ordinary piece of property, it has boundaries, establishing the extent of the grant. Sometimes these boundaries are hard and firm; sometimes they are fuzzy, and subject to public rights of way. 

    The owner of a legal monopoly may charge whatever he pleases, without fear of competition. If enough people infringe on this monopoly, the value of the grant is diminished, It is not the works that are stolen away, but the author’s monopolistic power.

  3. I understand the distinction being drawn. And if you consider that trespass as a case of sneaking into a performance that you haven’t bought a ticket to, OK, the analogy may be reasonable.

    Yes, there are specific exceptions, and calling fair use akin to a public right of way is not bad… again, OK, I see the analogy.

    However, copyright violation can also be legitimately described as analogous to theft of services. Which is generally considered a theft.

    So I specifically have trouble with the “copying is not theft” formulation. In my experience, people have a bad habit of forgetting that it’s closer to “copying is not *necessarily* theft, and it’s your responsibility to understand when it is and isn’t legal and/or ethical.” As a slogan, it’s too easily misinterpreted to mean what people want to hear rather than what it’s legitimately trying to say.

    We need a new key phrase which does a better job of carrying the intended meaning.

  4. Hey folks, and thanks Cory for sharing my arrangement! There’s more explanation on the link to my blog.

    But anyway, here’s the deal: by most use, the word “theft” necessarily involves deprivation. Accepting that, the only thing ever being stolen in copyright violation is whatever someone is deprived of. So I violate your copyright monopoly, I “stole” your exclusive control. Or if I would have paid for it, but now I won’t, then I “stole” your potential income (but you have to be sure that my action actually changed this, it doesn’t apply if I wasn’t going to pay you otherwise nor if I pay you anyway after violating the copyright). If I get more attention for my use of your work, then I “stole” attention from you (maybe, although this may not be a zero-sum game, maybe I just added to the total attention to both of us).

    In no case did I steal a file or a piece of music or a book or whatever, unless I deleted your copy.

    Now, whether these other problems validate our legal restrictions on copying is a different question. I have my opinions which are based on both personal experience and statistical evidence and rational argument. But we can have this debate. Let’s just make sure we are debating the right thing. There is no debate about actually stealing objects because that is totally irrelevant.


      1. You’re missing the point. Eating is not theft. Well, except when it is, like if you eat someone else’s food. But anyone who tries to demonize eating is insane. Likewise, we should have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who wants copying as a concept to be seen with suspicion.

        Now, eating is actually MORE likely to be theft than copying, because eating is consumption! There is now less of something. Copying is not consumption. Taking up space in a concert hall is consumption (although in some cases there may be more than enough resources for everyone so there is still no scarcity).

        What you have serious trouble with is almost surely one thing: creators struggling economically to continue creating and living with dignity. And you will not better me in that concern, I am exceptionally concerned about this issue. The idea of blaming copying for this problem is thoroughly misguided, though. Spend some time reading Techdirt.

        Anyway, this is probably the most public I’ve announced this, as it isn’t ready for public announcement, but: I’m actually dedicating my time to creating a completely revolutionary system to encourage economic support of creators of art, music, science, software, etc. in a way that still has no artificial restrictions on access, sharing, and modification. Details announced later this year.

        The point in the end is: restrictions on sharing are fundamentally unethical and they currently serve only one good purpose: providing a sometimes-adequate economic structure for creators within what is basically a corrupt economic system. When these economic concerns are addressed, there will be no ethical justification left for copyright restrictions.

        P.S. note that plagiarism, i.e. fraud, is completely unrelated; people seem to confuse that too often.

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